Best books I read in 2020

The best books I read in 2020 – generally released in other years – were:

  • Albert Camus, The Plague
  • Tom Chivers, The AI Does Not Hate You: Superintelligence, Rationality and the Race to Save the World: Great introduction to and history of the rationalist community.
  • Melanie Mitchell, Artificial Intelligence, A Guide for Thinking Humans: Mitchell is too easy on humans, but a fair examination of where we are with AI and some great explanations of various AI approaches.
  • David Reich, Who We Are and How We Got Here: I was amazed at how far over the last decade the research into human origins had shifted. The story being told around the time of my PhD has been blown apart.
  • Judea Pearl, The Book of Why: I’m still working through Pearl’s approach and how it relates to other approaches to causation, but this is possibly the best starting point on Pearl’s work.

Below is the list of books that I read in 2020 (starred if a re-read). The number of books fell yet again relative to the previous year, with 37 books (21 non-fiction, 16 fiction). I’ve left a lot of fiction read to the kids off this list – the Harry Potter series (multiple times), the full Wizard of Oz series, the Deltora Quest series, Enid Blyton, and so on – but the decline in substantive reading was driven by other factors.

First, I took on a heavy teaching load in the second half of the year – teaching post-graduate economics and behavioural economics units – on top of the day job. Most of the teaching involved designing the units from scratch. I was swamped. From July to November inclusive, I completed two non-fiction books.

Second, and what I expect will prevent a rebound in the number of books I complete, is that my approach to reading has changed in the last couple of years. My previous rationale for reading a book was typically to simply hear someone’s thoughts and arguments on a topic that might be interesting. Now, I’m more likely picking up a non-fiction book to learn something specific. I’ll read as much as I need to, which is often only a small portion, in which case the book doesn’t make this list. Academic articles or web material are often better sources.

I expect that’s a better use of my time. If you asked me to summarise a book I read 10-years ago, I can typically recall the main concepts and an example or two. But that’s about it, even if I took a lot of notes or wrote a review. It’s the concepts and associated illustrations that stick, and the most efficient way to understand and remember them is typically not reading a book.

Non-Fiction

  • Tobias Baer, Understand, Manage and Prevent Algorithmic Bias
  • Peter Burow, Behavioural Economics for Business: How the insights of behavioural economics can transform your business
  • John Carreyrou, Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup
  • Tom Chivers, The AI Does Not Hate You: Superintelligence, Rationality and the Race to Save the World
  • Brian Christian, The Most Human Human: What Artificial Intelligence Teaches Us About Being Alive
  • John Cleese, So, anyway
  • Andy Grove, Only the Paranoid Survive
  • David Krakauer (ed), Worlds Hidden in Plain Sight: The Evolving Idea of Complexity at the Santa Fe Institute 1984-2019
  • Howard Kunreuther, Mak Pauly and Stacey McMorrow, Insurance and Behavioural Economics
  • Burton Malkiel, A Random Walk Down Wall Street
  • Kevin Mitchell, Innate: How the Wiring of Our Brains Shapes Who We Are
  • Melanie Mitchell, Artificial Intelligence, A Guide for Thinking Humans
  • Haruki Murakami, What I talk About When I Talk About Running
  • Judea Pearl, The Book of Why
  • David Reich, Who We Are and How We Got Here
  • Jenni Romaniuk and Byron Sharp, How Brands Grow, Part 2
  • Lisa Servon, The Unbanking of America: How the New Middle Class Survives
  • Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
  • Nathalie Spencer, Good Money: Understand your choices, boost your financial wellbeing
  • Nassim Taleb, Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life
  • David Thomas and Andrew Hunt, The Pragmatic Programmer

Fiction

  • Douglas Adams, The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy*
  • Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale
  • Margaret Atwood, The Testaments
  • Christopher Buckley, Little Green Men
  • Albert Camus, The Plague
  • Kate Chopin, The Awakening
  • Michael Crichton, The Lost World
  • William Gibson, Neuromancer
  • Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden
  • Robert Heinlein, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
  • Miles Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being
  • DH Lawrence, Lady Chatterley’s Lover
  • Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird*
  • Thomas Mann, Death in Venice
  • Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood
  • Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club*
  • Walter Tevis, The Queen’s Gambit

Previous lists: 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019

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